IITK and its beginnings

The act was deemed professional suicide, yet professor Purushottam Kashinath Kelkar accepted the post to become the first director of IIT Kanpur. The beginnings were uncertain, the institute had no campus until 1963 – 4 years after its establishment – classes were initially held at the Harcourt Butler Technological Institute, but Kelkar persevered. He recruited young, highly qualified individuals in whom he injected his enthusiasm for building an institute to drive India forward.

At the beginning of the institute, the government of the United States, under a pact with India, had agreed to develop it. This program – called the Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP) – helped to set up institute laboratories and academic programs in the initial years, leaving outlines that have shaped our current academic system. A three man team sent by MIT headed by Norman Dahl to study the status of undergraduate education, though initially skeptical, found in Kelkar a man who shared the same visions and ideals as they did, together they began to mold the institute into what it has become now.

The first Academic curriculum was Kelkar’s brainchild. It was born out of his belief that the institute should not just make mindless machines. A large part of the curriculum consisted of sciences and humanities. He believed that humanities would make the individual cognizant of his responsibilities to the society while the sciences would help him create technology for a future India, a viewpoint that was agreed upon by Dahl. The institute continued receiving assistance through KIAP until 1972 when India’s involvement in the Bangladesh liberation war strained its relationship with the United States.

The Student’s Gymkhana started in 1962, a wee little body with only cultural and general councils headed by the DOSA as president. Designed to voice students’ opinions, the students’ gymkhana has done a remarkable job in and out of the campus since its inception. Soon the body became solely run by students after 1968 when the post of president became open to students.

The close contact with American professors coupled with the exciting opportunities abroad inspired many students at IIT Kanpur to pursue their education abroad. By 1975 more than 50% of the students went abroad for higher education or jobs, a ticking time bomb considering that most of the education in IIT was subsidized by the government. In the early 1980s disaster struck, brain drain had become a political issue and the government had made drastic cuts to the funding to the IITs. The problem went to such an extent that they had to borrow money to pay salaries to the faculty. Even simple stationery like pens were rationed. A committee was set up to look into these problems and changes were suggested. IIT Kanpur was advised to generate its own funds to counter the shortage. This was done by making collaborations with industry, a tie up while funding the institute, reduced its academic freedom.

Antaragni kicked off as “cultfest” in 1964, marking the beginning of the first intercollegiate cultural festival. Techkriti, however, started late in 1995. After the inception of Techkriti, other intercollegiate festivals began to spring up too. The films and media council began Umang; the sports council, Udghosh; an entrepreneurship festival called Megabucks was also started. Soon the academic calendar became cluttered with festivals and student activities. To remedy this a festival pruning committee was set up. The committee, in its initial reports wanted to limit the maximum budget of festivals to just 25 lakhs and allow only two festivals, Antaragni and Techkriti. The gymkhana however opposed the initial proposals of the committee, a view that was taken in consideration by the institute. A newer set of proposals was redrawn and the budget limit was withdrawn. However, the limit on the number of intercollegiate fests was still set to two. Udghosh however was given the clean slate as it provided much needed practice for the institute’s sports teams. Udghosh still does not have a holiday on its start, a reminder of the efforts that the student body has taken and the role it plays (vote carefully)

The institute’s unique education has produced many prominent people who have brought about sweeping changes in their respective fields, be it Narayana Murthy who helped found Infosys, Manindra Agrawal who co-created the AKS primality test, or Ashoke Sen whose paper on S-duality helped changed the course of research in string theory.

While it is enjoyable to reminisce about the past, we must also remember that a future lies ahead of us, a future that should be built with blood and sweat and a future to be remembered.
We should not only be proud of our institute but make it proud of us.

This post was written by Praharsh Suryadevara for Vox Populi.